Nestor Cortes becomes Yankees’ nasty surprise in the nick of time

Yankees starter Nestor Cortes is seen during the game against the Astros on August 5, 2023, at Yankee Stadium.
Michael Bennington
Sunday August 6, 2023

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The legend of Nasty Nestor is back with Nestor Cortes powering the Yankees to a convincing win against the Astros. The 28-year-old starting pitcher took the mound on Saturday after a lengthy absence of 67 days and immediately showcased what the Yankees were missing to cope with a challenging period.

Nestor Cortes did more than just stifle Houston’s offense during his four innings on the mound, establishing the rhythm in a 3-1 victory. His first 64 pitches made sure Houston won’t take a runaway lead in the first few innings at Yankee Stadium as they did a day before.

Nestor Cortes turns nasty vs. Houston

The Yankees pinned high hopes on Nestor Cortes, who was quickly recovering from his rehab assignments, and called him back without a third rehab. In return, he demonstrated why he was thought to be crucial to the Yankees’ pursuit of an American League Wild Card spot.

Nestor Cortes showcased his finest performance of the season, surrendering only one run on a single hit, walking one batter, and recording eight strikeouts. Remarkably, he achieved all of this within the confines of a 64-pitch limit.

The Yankees starter demonstrated absolute command on the mound, notching a season-high of eight strikeouts. The Astros batters struggled to make contact, as they swung and missed on 17 occasions against Nestor Cortes, resulting in a 50% swing-and-miss rate. Despite his dominant performance, there was one hiccup when Nestor Cortes gave up a solo home run to Jose Altuve. It happened on a two-strike cutter that inadvertently found its way to the center of the plate, and Altuve capitalized, sending the ball soaring 403 feet to left field.

Nestor Cortes induced weak contact on nearly every ball that the Astros managed to put in play against him. Throughout his entire performance, he remained sharp and kept Houston guessing by utilizing various arm angles, preventing them from settling into a rhythm. This classic display of Nestor Cortes’ skills was highly promising and serves as a positive sign as he continues to strengthen his presence in the major league team.

Nestor Cortes wrapped up his outing after delivering 64 pitches, and the responsibility then fell into the hands of the best bullpen in baseball as they took over in the fifth inning.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes at Yankee Stadium.

Yankees took a calculated risk, Nestor Cortes proved his worth

The Yankees took a gamble by activating Nestor Cortes from the injured list on Saturday. Although he performed well in his two rehab starts with minor league teams, recovering from a significant rotator cuff strain, he hadn’t faced major league batters since May 30, and his pitch count wasn’t sufficient to last through the middle innings.

Even though his main focus was on getting healthy, Nestor Cortes didn’t mind returning to the rotation early because he was eagerly looking forward to getting back on the mound and pitching again.

Manager Aaron Boone had mentioned that Nestor Cortes would have a pitch limit before the game, considering he skipped his final rehab start. Despite the limitation, Cortes made the most of his abbreviated outing, impressing everyone with a superb performance. He struck out a season-high eight Astros in the Yankees’ 3-1 victory, only surrendering one hit, which happened to be a solo home run by Jose Altuve.

Manager Aaron Boone expressed his satisfaction with Nestor Cortes’ performance, acknowledging that even though he wasn’t fully built up yet, he looked sharp on the mound. Boone praised the Yankees starter’s command of his fastball and cutter and the effectiveness of his slider in keeping the hitters off balance.

Saturday’s performance was a standout for Nestor Cortes in 2023, showcasing his most effective “stuff” on the mound. He induced an impressive 17 swings and misses during the outing, the highest since October 1 of the previous year when he had 20. Additionally, the Yankees starter reached a season-high in four-seam fastball velocity at 95.6 mph. According to Statcast data, there was an increase in average velocity for both his four-seam and cutter, and the spin rates on four of his five pitches also saw an uptick.

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Although Boone doesn’t place significant emphasis on radar gun readings for Nestor Cortes, the left-hander couldn’t ignore the noticeable change in his pitches. He was well aware that it would be a favorable day as he was in the outfield playing catch before the game.

Nestor Cortes mentioned that he felt much stronger compared to three months ago or even at the beginning of the season. He had no soreness or aches, and he believed that his improved arm condition allowed him to command his pitches effectively, as demonstrated in his performance that day.

Nestor Cortes has the potential to offer some much-needed stability to the Yankees’ rotation, which has been facing challenges with Germán’s placement on the restricted list and Severino’s struggles. If he can stay healthy and maintain the consistency that led to his success in 2022, Cortes might become a crucial asset for the Yankees.

Boone praised Nestor Cortes as a valuable asset to the team, emphasizing his performance since joining the rotation in the middle of 2021. Despite concerns about injuries earlier in the season, Nestor demonstrated his capabilities, providing a significant boost to the team. The Yankees were eager to have him back in the lineup, knowing the impact he could make.

High hopes from the Yankees

Should Nestor Cortes replicate his stellar performance from 2022 in the remaining two months, the Yankees could have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. Despite a starting rotation that seems makeshift with the presence of Carlos Rodon and Luis Severino, Cortes’ top-notch performance could be a game-changer for the team’s playoff aspirations.

Including Nestor Cortes in the rotation is not just a desire; it’s a necessity for the team.

Nestor Cortes expressed that he believed replicating his performance from last year would greatly benefit the team. He acknowledged the presence of prominent names in the rotation and emphasized the collective effort to support Gerrit Cole and Clarke Schmidt.

With Domingo German out for the rest of the season and Luis Severino struggling throughout the year, the rotation now comprises Gerrit Cole, Clarke Schmidt, Carlos Rodon, and either Luis Severino or Jhony Brito, alongside Nestor Cortes, whose return was hastened due to German’s placement on the restricted list last Wednesday.

Schmidt, who has emerged as the Yankees’ second most reliable starter, has already pitched 109 ²/₃ innings, surpassing his previous single-season career high of 90 ²/₃ innings thrown back in 2019 during his time in the minors. Given the challenging circumstances, the Yankees will undoubtedly be closely monitoring his workload for the remainder of the season.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

This version of Nestor Cortes was a force to be reckoned with, displaying a level of dominance we haven’t seen before. In his previous 1,001 pitches leading up to this game, his fastball had maxed out at 94.7 mph. However, on Saturday, he cranked it up to 95.6 mph on a four-seamer to Kyle Tucker in the first inning, making a noticeable difference. While velocity isn’t the sole factor determining Nestor Cortes’ success, it certainly plays a significant role in his overall performance.

Nestor Cortes maintained an impressive average of 93 mph on his four-seamer, surpassing his season average by 1.5 mph. His fastball proved to be incredibly deceptive, as he generated eight swings-and-misses out of 15 attempts by the batters. Overall, he induced 17 swings and misses, a remarkable feat. In contrast, the Yankees struggled to connect against Justin Verlander during his seven-inning return with only five swings and misses.

It’s quite an accomplishment for a lineup that, during the period from July 17 to July 31, had been struck out 11 times or more in five out of 12 games. Within that timeframe, they even experienced games with 16, 17, and 18 strikeouts, once each.

Nestor Cortes’ performance offers hope that the Yankees can make a push despite their challenges. With two wins out of three against Houston, they have a chance to secure just their second series victory since the start of July.

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